The tools available by the police to fight the yakuza are limited. Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “Japanese authorities can’t engage in plea bargaining or witness relocation, and wiretapping is almost never allowed. In the past , yakuza were rarely violent, and if they did attack somebody it was usually another gang member, wish wasn’t considered a problem. One officer in the organized-crime-prevention unit told me that in the 1980s, if a yakuza killed a rival he often turned himself in.” “They guilty person would appear the next day and say, “I did it,” the policemen said, “he’d be in jail for only two or three years. It wasn’t like killing a real person.”[Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

The policeman told Hessler that yakuza played some useful roles: “Japanese society doesn’t really have any place for juvenile delinquents. That’s one role the yakuza play. Traditionally, it’s place where people can send juvenile delinquents. It is not unusual for parents of troubled teenagers to send their kids off to the yakuza. The policeman also said that until recently as a matter of courtesy the police would give the gangs a head up before a bust so they would have time to hide particularly damning evidence.

The policeman then went on to lament how the yakuza had changed. “It used to be they didn’t do theft or robbery.” He blamed greed and said after the bubble economy collapsed many yakuza had trouble adjusting and instead of just trying to put up a fascde of being a dangerous psychopath actually began to live up to the image.

The roots of that arrangement can be traced back to the 1800s, when the forerunners of the yakuza were permitted to carry weapons, provided they helped to maintain order when the police were short of manpower. Ironically, Kobe, the home city of the largest yakuza syndicate Yamaguchi-gumi, is one of the safest cities in Japan, because "cheap" criminals such as street gangs and thugs are afraid to attract the yakuza's attention so they avoid being active in the city. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian , January 5, 2012]

In 2009 Takaharu Ando, then chief of the police agency, declared war on the yakuza, ending a long-established practice of tolerating the mob, which in turn kept down street crime and adhered to established rules of engagement. The yakuza have since found it harder to bid for major construction projects through front companies, and to open new offices or buy private homes amid opposition from residents.

Beginning in 2009, led by agency chief Takaharu Ando, Japanese police began to crack down on the gangs. Kodo-kai chief Kiyoshi Takayama was arrested in late 2010. In December 2010, police arrested Yamaguchi-gumi's alleged number three leader, Tadashi Irie. According to the media, encouraged by tougher anti-yakuza laws and legislation, local governments and construction companies have begun to shun or ban yakuza activities or involvement in their communities or construction projects. The police are handicapped, however, by Japan's lack of an equivalent to plea bargaining, witness protection, or the United States' RICO Act. Laws were enacted in Osaka and Tokyo in 2010 and 2011 to try to combat Yakuza influence by making it illegal for any business to do business with the Yakuza. [Source: Wikipedia]

Efforts by Police to Fight the Yakuza

The police traditionally have left the yakuza alone, following an old Japanese proverb that goes “if you keep your distance from the devil he can do you no harm.” The National Police Agency only has 35 people in its organized crime division. When police pose a threat, often an unlucky career criminal is selected to be the fall guy for higher-ranked gangsters that actually behind the crimes.

In July 2011, he Obama administration announced harsh new sanctions against four far-flung criminal organizations — including the yakuza — part of what it said was a coordinated strategy to fight international underworld factions that could harm United States interests or security.The order freezes the groups’ assets, blocks them from holding interest in American property, authorizes financial sanctions against anyone aiding them and bars their members from entering the United States. The other groups were the Zetas, a Mexican drug ring linked to multiple killings; the Camorra, a crime network based in southern Italy; and the Brothers’ Circle, an Eastern European criminal group operating worldwide.

Jake Adelstein, author of “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan”, wrote in the Washington Post: “The cops fighting organized crime are hard-drinking iconoclasts — many look their mobster foes, with their black suits and slicked-back hair, They’re outsiders in Japanese society.” Adelestein said the police are often quite well-informed of yakuza activities and try their best to fight them.

In Roppongi the police know that the gangs are taking protection money but find it difficult prove. These days, police are putting more energy into going after groups on tax evasion charges. Only recently has an effort been made to levy taxes from crime groups. Police has also used other white collar crimes to go after gang members. The former boss of Osaka-based Asuka-kai was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and embezzling ¥131,2 million from parking lot operations.

Police have searched the general headquarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi in Kobe in connection with the shooting a member or a rival gang member. In response to such activities gangs have stepping up their efforts to spy on the police. Yamaguchi-gumi members make notes on the license plate numbers of vehicles involved in investigations.

In February 2009, banks in Japan were given instructions not to open accounts for gang member as part of an effort to cut down on money laundering.

Efforts by Citizens to Fight the Yakuza

Azumagumi headquarters
In some places citizen volunteers have aided police in an attempt to pressure gangs to curtail their activities by monitoring their offices around the clock, harassing people that enter the offices an searching vehicles for weapons. The gangs get around such efforts by simply opening up office in different locations.

In Roppongi, some businesses have formed councils in an efforts to eliminate gang influence. In 2006, drinking and feasting places in trendy Shinuku Ward in Tokyo announced that the would no longer pay protection money to gangsters or buy goods from them at exorbitant prices.

The efforts by local residents has been effective. In the summer of 2007, a company affiliated with the Yamaguchi-yumi group purchased a condominium in central Tokyo. Residents of the condominium filed a suit against the crime group and got them to move from the condominium. Residents also kept the yakuza accuse from purchasing buildings in Toshima Ward of Tokyo and the Akasaka area if Minatio Ward, Tokyo.

Legal Action Against the Yakuza

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No Yakuza at the public bath
In December 2004, a yakuza member was ordered nearly $1 million in compensation to the mother of a 27-year-old graduate student who was murdered by gang leader and his associates in March 2002. The student and his friends got into a fight with the yakuza members in a parking lot in Kobe at 3:00am. Before he was killed the student had called police on his cell phone, saying “Gangsters picked a fight with me, and they’ve punched me.”

In November 2004, an Osaka court ruled that the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate had to pay ¥80 million damages over the killing of a police officer by an affiliated gang. The police officer, who was not in uniform and was conducting surveillance of a rival gang, was mistaken for a member of that rival gang.

People have used laws that hold crime organizations responsible for act of their members to go after the gangs and their leaders. In December 2006, a writer of books about the yakuza whose son was stabbed by scissor in the thigh by small time goons sued the leaders of Yamaguchi-gumi, whom he said ordered the attack, for ¥72 million in damages. The men who stabbed the son were found guilty and given sentences of three to six years. The writer, who wrote an article the yakuza didn’t like and was the target of three attacks, set out to prove that their bosses either ordered or were responsible for the attack.

In 2007, a gang boss received the death penalty for his involvement in a the January 2003 bar shooting that left five people dead, including three members of the public, and the shooting of a gangster in a hospital in February 2002 even though the gang boss wasn’t directly involved in the actual killings.

In 2008, 600 residents in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture filed a petition for a temporary injunction to stop the Dojin-kai crime syndicate from using its headquarter in the city. Since 2006, Dojin-kai had been in bloody confrontation with Omuta-based Kyushu Seido-kai, a group that broke away from Dojin-kai. Violent exchanges between the two groups in Kurume had left members on both sides dead and residents fearful that violence might spill into their neighborhood.

Asakusa Festival Bans Coats with Gang Names

In May 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The organizer of the Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo's Asakusa district has decided to ban members of organized crime groups from wearing hanten coats bearing their groups' names at the event. Following the enforcement in 2011 of a Tokyo metropolitan government ordinance aimed at the ultimate elimination of crime syndicates, festival organizer Asakusa Jinja Hosan-kai hopes to improve the atmosphere of the annual event. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 18, 2012]

During the 10 years through 2007, 33 members of organized crime groups were arrested on suspicion of violating various regulations during the festival, including the metropolitan government ordinance on the prevention of public and private nuisances. For example, gangsters often clambered onto mikoshi portable shrines being carried during the festival. Due to such incidents, the carrying of the three Honsha Mikoshi portable shrines, the main event of the festival, was canceled in 2008.

In the past few years, no major trouble has been reported. However, some gang members wearing hanten coats bearing their groups' names carried portable shrines, while other members showed off tattoos on their upper body. This resulted in numerous complaints from spectators to Asakusa Jinja Hosan-kai. Asakusa Jinja Hosan-kai also was considering eliminating food and other stalls at the festival venue because some sellers' proceeds have ended up in the hands of crime syndicates. However, it is difficult to tell which stalls are linked with such groups, so the organizer decided to reduce the stall area on the shrine's grounds to two-thirds of what was usually allocated.

Local Governments Fight Yakuza

In Fukuoka Prefecture authorities are trying to break up crime syndicates by breaking the ties between companies and the syndicates using pioneering laws that penalize companies for providing money to syndicates, The move clearly got the attention of the gangs. In April 2010, shots were fired into the home of a man leading a campaign to eliminate crime syndicates in Kitakyushu, a center of the campaign, and buildings connected with a local gas company planning to construct a liquified natural gas platform in Kitakyushu. After that the head of Japan’s National Police Agency made a personal visit to the city to encourage to local police not to back down and intensify their fight against the gangsters, particularly the Kitakyushu-based Kudo-kai syndicate

The Fukuoka law stipulates up to a year in prison and fine of up to ¥500,000 for companies and individuals that provides funds to crime syndicates. In a meeting before 100 police officers investigating Kudo-kai, NPA chief said, “Whether the nation’s battle against crime syndicates will succeed is up to your investigations in Kitakyushu. Use every law and ordinance to destroy Kudo-kai completely.”

Crackdown on the Yakuza in the Construction Industry

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Japan’s construction industry started its anti-mob effort in 2008. The effort has shifted away from the past focus on going after the crime gangs themselves. Now the emphasis is on monitoring companies and imposing tougher penalties on ones that do business with the mob. In April, the federation advised its members to adapt a clause in all contracts that would void obligations if a contractor was found to have links with the yakuza.” The arrest of Kiyoshi Takayama, the No. 2 man in the Yamaguchi-gumi, has been part of the national crackdown (See Takayama’s arrest). [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, November 18, 2010]

“Local governments, whose public works projects account for the bulk of construction spending in Japan, have also joined the campaign to extract the yakuza from the building business,” Taguchi wrote. In December 2010, “Tokyo banned any company or individual affiliated with the yakuza from city contracts — from office supplies to public works — along with threats of penalties and public disclosure for companies found to have mafia ties.”

Morio Umeda, who runs a public anti-yakuza advice center in Tokyo and runs seminars for companies on dealing with the yakuza, told the New York Times that inquiries are rising as more companies try to sever ties with the mob. In 2009, similar advice centers across the country received more than 4,200 consultations about organized crime from companies in construction or real estate, about 12 percent of total consultations. “I tell them that they should not be afraid, that they should go to the police even if they are warned not to,” Mr. Umeda, a former anti-yakuza officer with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, told the New York Times. “But especially at busy construction sites, it can sometimes be difficult to be aware of who’s coming and going.”

“And the mob is threatening to fight back,” Taguchi wrote. In October 2010, police say, “a gunshot was fired into the wall of a construction site linked to Takenaka Corporation, one of Japan’s biggest general contractors, the fourth shooting at construction sites in Tokyo in 2010. Although no one has been hurt, the shootings have resonated in a country where guns are almost unobtainable for everyone except gangsters.”

Those close to the yakuza call the attacks a sign of desperation. “It’s the ice age” for organized crime, said Yukio Yamanouchi, a former legal adviser to the Yamaguchi-gumi, who still defends members of organized crime. “They looked for new earnings in the mainstream economy, but that’s triggered a backlash,” Mr. Yamanouchi told the New York Times. “Now, some yakuza are worrying where their next meal will come from.”

Yakuza Pushed Out of the Tokyo Sky Tree Project

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Tokyo Sky Tree
The Tokyo Sky Tree, a new tower in Tokyo has become of symbol of the crackdown on mob activities in Japan’s construction industry. The yakuza has been banned from the construction of the 2,080-foot tower, developers say. “The mob cannot come here,” Toru Hironaka told the New York Times. He is a lawyer who leads a legal team retained by the tower’s developers to bar crime syndicates from the construction project. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, November 18, 2010]

Companies involved in the Sky Tree project include the railroad operator Tobu Railway and the Obayashi Corporation, one of Japan’s biggest contractors. In late 2008, the companies working on the Sky Tree teamed up with local businesses to form an anti-yakuza committee. It is one of more than 100 similar committees that have been formed here in the past few years.

Hironaka told the New York Times movement to and from the construction site is closely monitored by guards and with closed-circuit video. Contracts are scrutinized to make sure that no construction equipment or materials — not even boxed lunches or gloves for workers — come from companies with mob affiliations. “The site is water-tight,” Mr. Hironaka said. “It will take a lot to get past all that.”

Arrest of Japan’s No. 2 Gangster

In November 2010, 63-year-old Kiyoshi Takayama, the No.2 gangster in Yamaguchi-gumi, was arrested in Kobe for allegedly extorting ¥40 million ($480,000) from a construction company in Kyoto. Takayama, who heads Nagoya-based Kodo-kai, told police, “I’m not involved in the matter.” Police allege Takayama engaged in the crime with 53-year-old Yoshiyuki Takayuma, head of a Yamaguchi-affiliate in Otsu. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun. November 2010]

With Tamaguchi-gumi head Kenichi Shinoda until April 2011 it was believed that Takayama virtually ran Yamaguchi-gumi with Kodo-kai support. The arrest of Takayama seems to have been be part of a strategy to weaken the crime syndicate by arresting its top leaders. A senior NPA official said, “We can expect Yamaguchi-gumi to fall into disarray with the arrest of its second-in-command. We plan to take advantage of this opportunity to tear the organization apart.”

In December 2010, Tadashi Irie, third-in-command with Yamaguchi-gumi, was arrested on suspicion of offering monetary “rewards” to the relatives of a jailed mobster. The arrest meant the top three leaders of the crime syndicate were all in jail although leader Kenichi Shinoda was released soon after that.

Yakuza Going Straight, Pinkie Prosthesis and Tattoo Removal

Many yakuza members reportedly have tried to go straight as a result of anti-racketeering legislation passed in 1992. The number of yakuza members reportedly dropped from 110,000 in the mid-1980s to 90,600 when the anti-gangster laws were passed in 1992 to around 80,000 in 1997 and 73,000 in 1999.

Many yakuza have moved into mainstream business, where they sometimes use their old tactics. One former member, Hiroyuku Suzuki, became a reverend with an evangelical Christian group after prayers helped improve his gambling skills so he could pay off his debts. Known for his fiery sermons, he organized the carrying of a cross from Okinawa to Hokkaido and spoke a prayer breakfast attended by Bill Graham and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The yakuza does not look fondly on members who leave their ranks. One member, who had worked for the yakuza for 30 years, was threatened, kidnapped and slashed in the head with a knife so severely he almost died.

One woman in Tokyo sells $3,000 plastic pinkie prosthesis for yakuza members who want to hide their livelihood. The woman told the Los Angeles Times that her customers included a mobster whose daughter was have difficulty finding a husband because of his profession and a former yakuza who was denied entrance into Guam by U.S. immigration officials.

Customers with tattoos are told they are not welcome in public baths and hot springs.Some yakuza members are spending $25,000 to have their tattoos removed with lasers. One plastic surgeon told the Los Angeles Times, he treated 70 to 80 former yakuza between 1992 and 1997. The majority of those who sought treatment, he said, were gangsters in their 20s and 50s who wanted out of the yakuza.

Japan Justice Minister Quits over Yakuza Links

In October 2012 Japan's justice minister's resignation over past connections to organized crime. The Guardian reported: “Keishu Tanaka, who was appointed just three weeks before, stepped down on Tuesday after a weekly magazine exposed his previous contacts with members of the yakuza. The government cited poor health as the cause of Tanaka's resignation after the 74-year-old was admitted to hospital with chest pains, high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. The chief cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura, told reporters: "After having a health examination, it was determined that with his symptoms, it was necessary to rest. It is regrettable, but I have accepted the resignation.” [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, October 23, 2012]

The magazine revealed that Tanaka, who is responsible for the country's criminal justice system, had acted as a matchmaker at the wedding of a senior gang member, and attended a party organised by the same gang's leader 30 years ago. Tanaka claimed he had been unaware of the groom's connections when he agreed to act as nakodo — a ceremonial role in Japanese weddings — and had no idea the party was being hosted by a yakuza boss.

Image Sources: Wikicommons, Wikipedia, Amazon, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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